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Sisterland(3)
Curtis Sittenfeld

“Fine,” I said. “Forget I said anything.”

“Don’t be a pussy.”

I glared at her. “Don’t call me names.”

“Well, it seems awfully convenient that you get to speak your mind and then close down the discussion.”

“I need to go home for their naps,” I said, and there was a split second in which Vi and I looked at each other and almost laughed. Instead, sourly, she said, “Of course you do.”

In the car, she was silent, and after a couple minutes, Rosie said from the backseat, “Mama wants to sing the Bingo song.”

“I’ll sing it later,” I said.

“Mama wants to sing the Bingo song now,” Rosie said, and when I didn’t respond, she added in a cheerful tone, “When you take off your diaper, it makes Mama very sad.”

Vi snorted unpleasantly. “Why don’t you just toilet train her?”

“We’re going to soon.”

Vi said nothing, and loathing for her flared up in me, which was probably just what she wanted. It was one thing for my sister to fail to appreciate the energy I put into our lunches, the sheer choreography of getting a six-month-old and a two-year-old out of the house, into the car, into a restaurant, and back home with no major meltdowns (never in my children’s presence could I have ordered a meal as intricately, messily hands-on as a fajita), but it was another thing entirely for Vi to mock me. And yet, in one final attempt at diplomacy, as I stopped the car on the street outside the small single-story gray house where Vi lived, I said, “For Dad’s birthday, I was thinking—”

“Let’s talk about it later.”

“Fine.” If she thought I was going to plead for forgiveness, she was mistaken, and it wasn’t just because we really did need to get home for Rosie and Owen’s naps. She climbed from the car, and before she shut the door, I said, “By the way?”

A nasty satisfaction rose in me as she turned. She was prepared for me to say, I didn’t mean to be such a jerk in the restaurant. Instead, I said, “Parabens are preservatives.”

Fourteen hours later, at three in the morning, our squabble was what I was stewing over; specifically, I was thinking that the reason I’d made my points so clumsily was that what I really believed was even more offensive than that being straight was easier than being gay. I believed Vi was dating women because she was at her heaviest ever—she’d quit smoking in the spring, and now she had to be sixty pounds overweight—and most lesbians seemed to be more forgiving about appearances than most straight men. I didn’t think I’d object to Vi being gay if I believed she actually was, but something about this development felt false, akin to the way she’d wished, since our adolescence, that she’d been born Jewish, or the way she kept a dream catcher above her kitchen sink. Lying there in the dark next to Jeremy, I wondered what would happen if I were to suggest that she and I do Weight Watchers together; I myself was still carrying ten extra pounds from being pregnant with Owen. Then I thought about how most nights Jeremy and I split a pint of ice cream in front of the TV, how it was pretty much the best part of the day—the whole ritual of relaxation after both children were asleep and before Owen woke up for his ten P.M. nursing—and how it seemed unlikely that half a pint of fudge ripple was part of any diet plan. This was when the bed in which Jeremy and I slept began to shake.

I assumed at first that Jeremy was causing the mattress to move by turning over, except that he wasn’t turning. The rocking continued for perhaps ten seconds, at which point Jeremy abruptly sat up and said, “It’s an earthquake.” But already the rocking seemed to be subsiding.

I sat up, too. “Are you sure?”

“You get Owen and I’ll get Rosie.” Jeremy had turned on the light on his nightstand and was walking out of the room, and as I hurried from bed, adrenaline coursed through me; my heart was beating faster and I felt simultaneously unsteady and purposeful. In his crib, illuminated by a starfish-shaped night-light, Owen was lying on his back as I’d left him an hour earlier, his arms raised palms up on either side of his head, his cheeks big and smooth, his nose tiny. I hesitated just a second before lifting him, and I grabbed one of the eight pacifiers scattered in the crib. As I’d guessed he would, he blinked awake, seeming confused, but made only one mournful cry as I stuck in the pacifier. In the small central hallway that connected the house’s three bedrooms, we almost collided with Jeremy and Rosie, Rosie’s legs wrapped around Jeremy’s torso, her arms dangling limply over his shoulders, her face half-obscured by tangled hair. Her eyes were open, I saw, but barely.

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